(3) How the bosses control and co-opt the workers’ movement

Part I: the capitalist state

The capitalist class understands that the class struggle cannot be wished away. If they want to keep control of society it is therefore necessary for them to try and manage it. They are prepared to use force and violence to do this. In the 2012 mineworkers’ strikes the ANC government declared a state of emergency across the platinum belt, deployed heavily armed police and shot dead 34 mineworkers at Marikana. To think that this was an exceptional tragedy that could never be repeated would be a dangerous mistake.

Organised violence against workers is routine under capitalism. Even taking part in a legal strike does not always give protection from police intimidation, harassment or even assault. Sometimes the bosses will use hired-thugs to attack workers and the ‘neutral’ state turns a blind-eye. But wherever possible the bosses prefer to disguise the violence of their system. Capitalism’s stability is at risk if its brutality is too obvious. Moreover, it is expensive to suppress the working class by force. So the capitalist class has developed methods of control for ‘normal times’.

The capitalist class’s economic dictatorship gives them enormous power to shape ‘public opinion’ through their control of the media and the education system; the family and religion are used to encourage the ‘virtues’ of hard work, obedience and acceptance of authority. The capitalist class use these levers to try and lower the temperature of the class struggle and avoid provoking a head-on confrontation between the classes.



The struggle for the fullest possible political freedoms and democratic rights has always been a part of workers’ struggles. The struggle to end apartheid and win basic political freedoms and democratic rights were hard fought in South Africa. The right to vote, to form political parties and trade unions, freedoms of speech, assembly and movement are very important tools that workers can use to organise. The very fact that today we are able to organise trade unions openly is a debt owed by workers to all those who struggled before them.

With organisation workers can force the capitalist class to make democratic concessions. At other times the bosses and the capitalist politicians recognise that it is in their interests to grant workers and their trade unions certain legal rights to stop a conflict from starting. From this combination of mass pressure and political calculation, laws like the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act have been passed, and special courts like the CCMA and Labour Court created. On paper at least, these place some limits on the bosses’ right to exploit workers.

But workers face enormous obstacles in exercising their rights. The bosses find legal tricks to win cases. They have the money to hire lawyers to create endless delays. They use the time that they ‘buy’ to demoralise workers into giving-up. Other ‘pro-worker’ reforms are no better than window-dressing. The 2015 law requiring all workers under labour-brokers to be hired as permanent staff after three months was simply ignored by the bosses. After more than three years the Constitutional Court has upheld the law – but even this is being challenged. The ANC government has done nothing about the bosses’ defiance. If they were serious about ending the super-exploitation of labour broking they would have hired thousands of new labour inspectors to enforce compliance.

When past concessions to workers become inconvenient the capitalist class will try and take them back. For example in 2018 new amendments to the Labour Relation Act were passed by the ANC government with the support of other capitalist political parties that make a legal strike more difficult to organise.


Economic dictatorship

Democracy and the freedoms and rights mentioned have not been sufficient for the working class majority to end poverty, inequality and unemployment. If anything things are moving in the opposite direction. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The young age of South Africa’s democracy is not the issue. Across North America and Europe democracy is decades, even centuries old. But poverty and inequality continue to exist there too. The enormous burden that corruption places upon state institutions is likewise more symptom than cause. Corruption is endemic to capitalism and has been excused, dressed-up and justified in different ways as long as capitalism has existed (see There Can Be No Capitalism without Corruption and other material on the WASP website). Rather, there is a more fundamental contradiction between democracy and capitalism.

We have already seen that the bosses cannot allow workers a real say in the workplace. It would make exploitation impossible. But the same is true across the economy as a whole. This too must be placed beyond the control of the majority. The result is a limited capitalist democracy (or bourgeois democracy as Marx called it) where institutions that appear highly democratic – one person, one vote, a parliament, a constitution, courts etc. – exist side by side with an economic dictatorship of the capitalist class. This contradiction demands strict limits on the democratic rights and individual freedoms of workers.

For example, imagine a group of 100 workers. They are unhappy that the time of their lunch hour has been changed. If one worker walks out alone the boss might complain, but he will likely agree it is their right to quit if they want to. Even if two, three, four or five workers did this. But if all 100 workers walk out together to demand that the boss changes their lunch hour back the boss will howl about an ‘illegal’ or ‘unprotected’ strike. He will say that workers are “holding him to ransom”. It is likely that the police will be called to deal with the workers. The boss may decide to fire every worker on the spot for ‘gross misconduct’.

From the point of view of the workers their actions were democratic. By walking-out they have exercised their right to protest.  To make their views known they have used their freedom of speech and their freedom of association (i.e. to organise). But when the police arrive it is the workers who will be arrested, not the boss. From the point of view of the bosses and the defenders of capitalism it was ‘mob-rule’.

Of course workers can organise to defend themselves from the most arbitrary treatment. But democratic mass organisations like trade unions are a problem for the capitalist class’s economic dictatorship. So everything possible is done to strangle the class independence of trade unions and co-opt them within the framework of the capitalist state. From the bosses point of view the legal framework of the capitalist state is organised according to the principle, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

On the surface South Africa appears to give organised workers and their trade unions significant status and power. For example, trade unions can appeal to the courts if an employer refuses to recognise them. Different collective bargaining forums allow trade unions to influence the wages of entire industries. But the price of the appearance of power is an unspoken agreement to ‘play the game’ according to the bosses’ rules.

For example, as we have explained above, industries are divided into many rival companies. They are all competing with each other meaning huge waste. Will the representatives of the so-called ‘neutral’ capitalist state ever point their finger at this? Will they ever recommend that the state intervenes and forces the consolidation (i.e. merger) of an industry to maximise economies of scale, reduce waste and free the resources necessary to raise wages? If a trade union were to raise such a bold proposal they will be told that it is “outside the mandate” of the forum. Anything that truly challenges the bosses’ control of the economy is off-limits.

Often the more generous a concession appears, the greater the deception it hides. For example, the constitution upholds the freedom of association – i.e. the right to organise – of both workers and employers. The right to strike is also recognised, though it is subject to heavy control. But the bosses’ right to lock-out workers is also recognised. This means that the constitution assumes private capitalist ownership of the economy. The constitution’s formal equality before the law is in reality a defence and recognition of the bosses’ economic dictatorship and a cover-up of the huge inequality of power between exploiter and exploited.

Karl Marx explained that, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie [capitalist class].” Under capitalism the reality is that even the most ‘democratic’ state is not neutral in the class struggle. The capitalist class uses it to defend their control of society. But to disguise this they present the state as an ‘honest broker’ between different but equal ‘stakeholders’. Lenin pointed out that,

“A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell … it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”

The State and Revolution, 1917

But always, behind the ‘democratic’ appearance, lies the threat of the organised violence of the capitalist state. If the bosses are unable to keep us busy chasing our tails they will crack our heads. Indeed, the legal framework of capitalism allows the bosses to appeal to ‘law and order’ as a justification to supress workers’ struggles when they step outside of what the law sanctions – and the law sanctions only that which does not challenge capitalism.


Capitalist politics

The capitalist political parties play an important role in this too. They act like there is no alternative to capitalism. If they do talk about an alternative to capitalism it is consciously left fuzzy and undefined with the idea encouraged that it will somehow be created via their party’s control of the capitalist state.

The most radical capitalist political parties may talk about expropriation of land or nationalisation of key industries. But this does not mean they are calling for a challenge to capitalism as a system. For example, if expropriation of farms swaps white capitalist farmers for black capitalist farmers, private ownership of the economy has not been changed. There has just been a re-division of ownership within the capitalist class. If nationalised industries are ‘owned’ by the capitalist state and run by capitalist politicians they will use nationalisation to promote and defend their class interests. For example, by subsidising privately owned industries, as Eskom does for the mine bosses by charging lower tariffs.

All the politicians and political parties that agree that capitalism is the ‘only’ way to run society ultimately have to accept and defend the bosses’ economic dictatorship. This is why the trade union movement cannot be neutral or stand aside from the question of politics. There are important discussions taking place among organised workers on this issue. The question of Cosatu’s Alliance with the ANC is again rising to the surface. Within Saftu there is a debate about launching a workers party. WASP is of the firm view that the organised working class must be at the forefront of building a socialist mass workers party. Trade unions challenge the bosses’ control of the workplace every day by independent working class organisation. Why would we leave their political control of society unchallenged? The struggle against the bosses on the shop floor must be extended into every corner of society. (See The Workers Party We Need and other material on the WASP website.)

Continue to (3) How the bosses control and co-opt the workers’ movement Part II: the trade union bureaucracy